If Breanna Stewart needs some inspiration in her rehab and recovery from a ruptured right Achilles tendon, the Seattle Storm star and 2018 WNBA MVP can look toward former Olympic teammate Tamika Catchings.
The two were on the U.S. team that won gold at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, which was Stewart's first season in the WNBA and Catchings' last. The former Indiana Fever standout knows well what Stewart is facing.
During a WNBA playoff game in Detroit on Sept. 3, 2007, Catchings went to make a cut, pushed off and suffered a torn right Achilles tendon. She was able to return to the Fever the following July and played in the Beijing Olympics in August. In all, she played in 25 of Indiana's 34 games that 2008 season.
Stewart also hopes to return to play in the Olympics after her injury, suffered in Sunday's EuroLeague championship game. She'll have a little more time to recover than Catchings did; the Tokyo Games run July 24-Aug. 9, 2020.
Catchings offered Stewart encouragement.
"For me -- and it's probably the same for Stewie -- being able to have something you're shooting for helps," Catchings said. "My goal was to make it back to play in the Olympics.
"It's a long process. But it's also like any other injury; once you get your head wrapped around it, you know you have to rehab, train and get it back. The mental part is harder than the physical part."
Make no mistake, the physical part is difficult, too. Catchings also suffered an ACL injury to her knee in January 2001 that cut short her senior season at Tennessee. She said the Achilles injury and rehab were more painful.
"Literally, it was the worst pain I've ever felt -- although I haven't had kids yet," Catchings said with a chuckle. "Even the ACL my senior year in college, I remember telling our trainer at the time, 'Tape it up; I'll be fine!' But with the Achilles, when I couldn't move my foot, I freaked out for a moment. I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, I'll never play basketball again.'"
After she got past the initial shock and fear, the rehab process started.
"Being able to get the flexion back is hard," Catchings said. "Your Achilles controls so much. And the skin down there is so much more sensitive. After the surgery, you have to get it loosened up. Ugggghhh.
"After they do the surgery, you go from your foot at a 90-degree angle to trying to get more and more flexion, so your foot can go up and down. We take that for granted every day, but after this injury, that is a process."
Catchings said she went through some depression after her ACL injury, but was reticent to seek any help until the Fever encouraged her to do that.
"I didn't understand it or know what it was," Catchings said. "At first, I was like, 'I don't need any sports psychologist!'"
But it helped and Catchings continued to work with a sports psychologist the rest of her career. So that support was already in place when she tore her Achilles.
"You have to get back to being able to trust your body," Catchings said. "The cut that I made was so routine. And for Stewie, you think about how many times she's come off that screen and shot that shot. But that one freak time, you get hurt. So it's about the mental capacity to trust that it won't happen again."
@breannastewart keep your head up, this ain't nothing you can't come back from. Stronger, Better and Determined🙏🏾— John Wall (@JohnWall) April 15, 2019
Catchings' Achilles injury happened about six weeks after she'd turned 28 years old. She said she felt back to fully normal by 2009, the year the Fever went to the WNBA Finals for the first time. And the best part of her pro career was still ahead. She went on to win the WNBA's MVP award (2011), play in three WNBA Finals (winning one, 2012), and win three of her four Olympic gold medals and one of her two world championship golds after the Achilles injury.
That should be an inspiration for Stewart, who is 24. She won't be 25 until August.
"For her, with the amazing past year she's had, she's going from an extreme high to an extreme low," Catchings said. "It's about understanding and accepting what's happened, and putting on your game face, shifting gears to like, 'This is my road back.'
"She can make it back for next season and the Olympics. It's not going to be easy; there will be a lot of ups and downs. But you push through it like you do anything else. And I believe she'll be fine."